Many weary travelers have fallen asleep in their plane or train seat wearingused to drown out the noise. But the last few years have brought a new goal to the audio landscape: Headphones and earbuds designed not only for falling asleep but staying in your ears throughout the night, protecting you from the environmental sounds such as snoring while sparing a bed partner from piping of audio into your head. Despite a range of form factors and audio programming, though, falling asleep to a private listening experience can be an elusive experience.
The wave of audio sleep aids kicked off with Kokoon, crowdfunded noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones that feature audio by Harman/Kardon, a significantly slimmed, elongated ear cup and an app rife with sleep-relevant audio programming, including meditation programs, and diagnostics. Kokoon feels fine as long as you sleep with the back of your head against the pillow. However, if one is a side-sleeper, it’s tough to get comfortable with the cup between the side of your head and the pillow, despite the product’s generous padding.
The size of Kokoon has been attacked by other companies seeking to create the ultimate audio experience for inducing and maintaining sleep. Launching on Indiegogo in 2018, Bose took a crack at the task with a public prototype of Sleepbuds, small comfortable earbuds intended to play a range of preset sounds off an app as opposed to lullabies. Despite receiving some positive reactions from the early adopters, others complained of connectivity and battery issues that the prestige audio brand sought in vain to address with firmware updates. Bose called it quits in late 2019, offering backers a full refund if they returned the buds. The company suggested at the time that it saw promise in the idea and hoped to return to it someday. Like Bose’s canceled augmented reality glasses, though, it faced a tough proposition in the troubled economy.
Next up in the earbuds-that-aren’t-quite-earbuds is QuietOn, a set of buds from Finland that don’t have any Bluetooth capability at all. Rather, its sole focus is on noise cancelation using an analog method that the company claims makes its earbuds among the smallest you can purchase and boast an exceptionally long battery life. I’ve tried QuietOn’s product and found that its noise-negating properties are indeed very good. However, it’s activated via on-device buttons that offer no feedback as to their function, and, again, side-sleeping with them isn’t comfortable. QuietOn suggested I try a different-sized bud, but the issue is really the pressure created by the part of the device that extends outside of the ear against the pillow.
But the dream of dreams isn’t dead. The latest company to turn to crowdfunding is Huami, a wearable technology partner of Xiaomi best known for its Amazfit fitness bands. Its white Zenbuds recall the cushy appearance of Bose’s aborted Sleepbuds, but its app is loaded with features like Kokoon’s. It includes a range of soothing sounds as well as the ability to optionally turn off once sleep is detected, sleep diagnostics, an in-ear alarm, and even a Pomodoro timer for when you’re trying to catch up on work rather than Z’s.
While the Zenbuds look the part, they face a mighty challenge in accommodating the huge range of ears and pillows that must combine to deliver a comfortable night’s sleep. Indeed, the ultimate audio-based lulling may come not from headphones at all but parametric speakers that can pinpoint sound so that its heard by you but not someone just a small distance away from you. Today, most parametric speakers are used in industrial applications, but an adaptation of the technology might one day block the output of noisy nostrils while sparing the snorer the auditory antidote to their own medicine.
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